TULSA, Oklahoma — Oklahoma first lady Sarah Stitt toured the church during Juneteenth celebrations last year and took special interest in a worn-out book, the pages cracked and mildewed.
“The Book of Redemption,” the congregation calls it at historic Vernon AME. It’s a ledger recording donations from hundreds of Tulsans who helped pay off the debt incurred by rebuilding the church after the 1921 Race Massacre.
It’s basically a “who’s who” of survivors, said the Rev. Robert Turner, Vernon AME’s current pastor. The names in the ledger include funeral home founder S.M. Jackson, who later testified that he “had four dead bodies in my home when they set the building on fire,” and Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, who returned home after the violence to find “my piano and all of my elegant furniture piled in the street,” according to his recorded testimony.
Examining the fragile book, the first lady seemed visibly moved, Turner said.
“She was touched by the stories,” he said, “and by the faith these individuals had to rebuild.”
Afterward, Stitt put Turner in touch with experts in Oklahoma City who restore historic documents for the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. And the Book of Redemption returned to Tulsa last week after eight months of restoration.
“It was in pretty bad shape,” said senior curator Anthony Schmidt. “The cover was disintegrating, the binding was falling apart and the pages were brittle.”
Obviously, however, the Bible Museum has seen a lot worse, having restored some of the most ancient manuscripts in the world.
“It’s not as old as some of the documents we have worked on,” Schmidt said. “But it’s definitely very special and it was honor to be trusted with it.”
With the restored ledger back in his possession, the Rev. Turner declared it to be in “very good condition now.”
“They did remarkable work,” he said.
The church was still under construction but already in use when the violence destroyed 35 square blocks of Tulsa’s Greenwood District on June 1, 1921. The next Sunday, Vernon AME borrowed chairs from a funeral home to have services in the remains of the church’s gutted basement.
The congregation rebuilt, despite insurance refusing to pay for damages, Turner said. And church members retired the debt just 13 years later, as documented in the Book of Redemption.
Vernon AME will unveil the restored ledger to the public at noon May 31 as part of Tulsa’s commemoration of the race massacre’s centennial, Turner said. And the church will soon make digital copies available to the public as well, he said.
“It’s a story about people who refused to quit,” Turner said. “They rebuilt this church when people thought it was gone forever, just like the rebuilt Greenwood when everybody thought it had been destroyed once and for all.”